Heart Rate Variability. You might have heard about it, or you might not have heard about it. I believe in the next 5 years, this will be all the rage in the fitness industry. Why? Because it gives you insight into how your body is handling stress.
HRV is the measurement of the change in time of your heartbeats known as RR intervals. Think of each beat of your heart as being code. That code is sending signals to your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) on what’s going on with you in terms of you are in a sympathetic nervous state (fight or flight) or in a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) at that moment.
Every inhale you take brings an ever so slight sympathetic response, and each exhales an ever-so-small parasympathetic response. This is why understanding your breathing rate is a market in biofeedback for HRV. The lower your Resting Heart Rate (RHR), the better recovered your body is because it is not burning at a higher rate per se to recover. Temperature is also another critical component of HRV biofeedback. If your temperature is up, your body is still recovering or needing more resources than you have available to recover.
The inter-beats tell your Central Nervous System (CNS) whether you are fight or flight or rest and digest in terms of the nervous system response. This all contributes to something called “allostatic load,” where that is your body’s perceived perception of stress or otherwise known as wear and tear on your body.
Think repeated or chronic stress and how your body adapts to it. HRV, in essence, gives you how your body is adjusting to stress and has been shown by research to be a significant objective measure of fitness level in individuals considering it is an essential biomarker for health in which it is actually a mortality predictor.
So that leads us to, what are things you can do to help improve your HRV?
Some things that have helped me with my HRV are: HIIT training, added micronutrients in foods – think fruit and vegetable. There are also supplements such as adaptogens that help HRV by lowering cortisol to help you get more restful sleep. I recommend de-loading your workouts, which just means to take nothing to failure and focus on recovery for a few weeks. Remember working out is a stressor. And finally, meditation. Yeah, I hear it all the time that no one can sit still to do it, but it is a habit or a skill you build with practice like anything else. Tons of research articles show meditation to be something that has immediate good effects on your HRV and allostatic load, and best of all, it is free.
There are a few wearable technologies that you can utilize to monitor your HRV, among other data points they provide, such as DEEP and REM sleep insights.
Each device has its own way of measuring HRV. For example, Elite Academy has one you put on your finger and plug into your phone, whereas WHOOP is a wrist device, and OURA is a ring. I have found WHOOP to be the best overall one. I like the fact it measures my day strain and how my workouts are affecting things. It is set-up better for my eyes to review trends and adjust accordingly.
Regarding HRV, trends are what you want to monitor the most. With WHOOP, I can see how even the foods I eat affect my HRV. If I eat a blizzard, for example, before bed, my HRV is down. Makes sense because micronutrients are crucial to recovery, and most processed foods lack them and even leech micronutrients from your body. This is where a good greens product as an extra supplementation would be helpful.
DEEP and REM sleep both contribute to HRV measurements. It makes sense in terms of recovery as DEEP and REM being over 15%+ each, the better recovered your body is going to be. Maximizing sleep time is an excellent way to ensure recovery is attained for optimal performance and/or living.
Finally, circadian rhythm has a fair amount to do with HRV as well – think consistent wake and sleep times. This is seen by how your body handles cortisol decreasing and melatonin rising, respectively when you need them to be optimal – waking (cortisol up) and sleeping (cortisol down). You want melatonin to increase as it a fantastic antioxidant for your body to ensure maximal recovery. If you are a part of the team, no sleep crew, you might as well just call it team no results. Without proper sleep 7-8 hours a night, you leave results and optimal health to the wayside. A consistent wake time and sleep time go along way in maximizing recovery and health as well.
There are two good books called the “Stress Connection” and “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” if you all are interested in further readings of stress and the interplay of it in terms of HRV.
HRV is here to stay, and as wearable technologies improve with the convergence of other technologies, the future looks bright for monitoring your body in real-time to make the best decisions daily on what your body needs for optimal health and productivity.
About Jeff Black
Jeff is a nationally recognized health and fitness coach, public speaker, podcast host for The Excellence Cartel, owner of Iron House Strength & Conditioning, bodybuilder, and Osteogenesis Imperfecta Advocate. He is also a roundtable expert on IntenseMuscle.com.
Today, Jeff works collectively with some of the top coaches in the health and fitness space presenting to other coaches and individuals on health and fitness. He has a passion for leadership and serving others to help them be their own hero. He is recognized for his results, but above all else, the passion he has for the coach’s heart he holds dear.